Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Monday, 30 March 2009

All publicity?

This year, I was asked to be on the judging panel of the Authors' Club First Novel Award. The way the award works is that all members of the Authors' Club are encouraged to read the entered books and to write reports on them, and then everything is compiled and compared by the committee, who work out a shortlist and pass it on to the adjudicator, this year Philip Hensher. The entire event climaxes with a lovely dinner, and presentation of the prize by the final judge, and this happened last Monday. Chad and I went along - it was only polite and the food is always so good. It was the best night out I've had in ages, Mr Hensher was a scream, and the evening ended with Chad, myself and a couple of other miscreants in the Groucho club. I'm not sure what I was expecting the Groucho to be like, except that this wasn't it. I guess I had pictures in my head of people dressed in bright jackets and dancing on the tables. It was classy, instead, and yet relaxed, with young, arty members. I can totally see why it was seen as a breath of fresh air compared to other London Clubs.

One of the highlights of the night for me (apart from having such a laugh with cool people) was meeting the Independent on Sunday's current literary editor. I have to admit, I quite enjoyed the blanche in her cheeks when she was introduced, having run, just the day before, by far the worse review I have ever received. I won't link to it here. I'm not giving the writer of said review any publicity at all, so if you want to see it, you can find it yourself. I'm not even going to comment about the review; people can read my books and make their own minds up and I don't expect everyone to like them. In fact, I quite deliberately write fiction that provokes, and think it's a bit of a victory that there are people who can't quite deal with the worlds I create.

What I will say is the same as I said on the night, to the literary editor sat two places away at dinner. No matter what a review says, I'd rather it existed than not. I believe every mention of your name, of the book, is of vital importance. Maybe I wouldn't feel the same if there weren't plenty of good reviews out there to balance the bad, but I do know this; when the Chatto edition of Starfishing came out, it didn't pick up many reviews at all, and it was completely dispiriting. There's nothing worse than a book being more or less ignored, so I'm pleased that it's getting so much more attention this time around. I'm also pleased that most of that attention is positive, but the odd bad review, even a real stinker like the I on S printed, is still worth having.

I've been thinking a lot about that adage all publicity is good publicity. PT Barnum apparently said 'I don't care what they say about me, just make sure they spell my name right!' and I like that attitude, and it works for me as a writer. But I'm not sure we can totally follow these rules in these days of celebrity obsession.

Take poor old Lily Allen. Hounded at home, followed around, chased by cars. Does it sound familiar? I'm sure that we were all left in shock about ten years ago by a woman who was hunted and chased by the press to such an extent it was contributory to her death, in a certain tunnel in Paris. Thank god, then, that the powers that be have made a sensible move and given Lily a court order to keep the dogs from her door. Sure, she courts publicity for her work, who doesn't? And she writes good music and lives a certain lifestyle, so lots of people are interested in her. I don't think this is a fair reason to hound the girl the way the press have been doing. There has to be a limit.

And talking of that limit can only lead us to the current Princess of our Hearts, Jade Goody, and her reality TV life. I'm not sure what there is left to say about the poor woman, except that I hope there was a pre-nup and that her babies see every penny of the money squeezed out with her dying breaths. Of course, that's after OK! take their cut, and Max Clifford of course, and all the rest. Magic.

For me, the whole Jade Goody nightmare was summed up by an anonymous and provocative local artist, all over Nottingham and also here. Quality.

It is her boys I feel for. No matter how much it's providing your inheritance, losing your mum must be bad enough. To see her illness plastered all over the papers and TV and not be able to turn away from it must be too much to bear. I just hope they are left alone now to deal with their grief.

RIP Jade. Well, if you want to, though I can't help wondering if we should send a photographer down there with you babe.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Some book reviews...

How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
The List by Tara Ison

I received How Not to Write a Novel direct from the publisher and the title put me off to begin with; I prefer to be told 'how to' do something, in general, than deal with negativity, but the book came with a note of recommendation from somebody I know and respect, and so I decided to read it. I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised, and I laughed a lot.

The book's structured around the various aspects of novel writing, plot, character, style etc and full of amusing examples of how to get your work rejected. It's astute, sardonic and generally very witty. Sure, it has a slightly superior tone in places, but I think it mostly avoids that, and whispers in the reader's ear 'are you sure you're not doing this?' I'm sure that if everyone who thought about sending submissions to editors or agents read this book, they could save themselves a lot of time and postage money, and improve the quality of what gets called the 'slush pile'.

I didn't agree with everything the book said and I certainly haven't always followed all its rules. For example, it said that writing about a break up was certain to get your book rejected and, in a sense, both my novels have featured one. I've just read a really great book that takes a break up as it's central subject (see below) and do think that bad relationships are too good a source of material to avoid. But I saw plenty that made sense in this book - and it's definitely one I would have recommended to my students, when I had them.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and filled with useful information presented in a more compelling way than the usual dry tone of the 'how to get published' or 'how to write a novel' books I've read. Recommended.

The List by Tara Ison is another book I was lucky enough to get for free - one of the biggest perks of being a published writer. This one was sent by Alexis, my US editor. She does think of me when she sees books I might like and I always enjoy them so thanks Alexis! It's taken me a wee while to get around to this one because I've had so much else I've felt I needed to read over the past year or so. It took me a good while to get to this one, but I am glad I finally did.

It's beautifully written, really elegant prose and Ison uses some complex ideas and unusual metaphors to bring the language alive. It has a small cast of characters, but they are incredible vividly drawn.

The story is almost exclusively about a break up, which apparently breaks the rules, but perhaps this book gets away with it because it's so well done. It's very, very compelling, car crash stylie, so that you know what's coming a lot of the time and don't want to see but you can't look away. You get the feeling these two people could be perfect for each other, if they were prepared to let each other go their own way. Isabel, the obsessive career surgeon, has found the perfect contented house husband if she'd just lighten up and realise that not everyone has to 'contribute' in the way she feels the need to. Al could work a little harder at explaining himself, at making sure Isabel understands why he's so contented with life, but also communicating the way he really feels about her. But then, I'm not even sure he knows he isn't. Men, innit?

The story pulls you along at quite a pace, getting darker by the page, just my kind of fiction. It's one of the best I've read for ages. The only slight negative for me was the ending. I really thought she had it just right and that I had reached the end, but there were pages left. There's not much I can say without spoilers, except that the last chapter significantly lightened the ending, and not in a way I could believe or level with. I would have left this final bit out. But, then, that's me. I'm dark, as I keep reminding my husband.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Onwards and, well, onwards...

My biggest news for a long time is that I am, with some regret, leaving the National Academy of Writing.

It has been a ball, it has been hard work and it has been nearly three years of my life, three of perhaps the hardest, all told, with certain personal circumstances. And now it is over. As of today.

It's time, I know that. The commute to Birmingham was a bitch, I can't stress enough how I hated it. I worked hard to get to know the writing and publishing community there but I always felt like a bit of an imposter in their midst and family life in Nottingham meant I couldn't get to nearly as many book launches and events as I would have liked. I also wanted to focus back on my writing, as it wasn't drifting as such, but it had ramped down pacewise by some level. So, yes, it was time and I will miss it very much. I will certainly miss my colleagues at Birmingham City, as well as members of the NAW board, who were the ultimate support network and never let me down. I will miss Birmingham, which is so much nicer than you think, and all the good folks there who took me into their hearts and helped me do what I was trying to do. I'd like to say a huge thank you to all of those people here. You know who you are.

The best thing about it has been the students. At times the worst thing about it has been the students too, but I won't dwell on that. (Or elaborate. No!)

Mostly I want to celebrate who they are and what they have achieved. I'm really proud of them. They're good writers because we chose them carefully, and each had to spend a week on our campus in Birmingham to prove themselves before they were allowed to proceed with the course. That's a big deal; giving up your life for a week to study on course that might not have you in the end. That's commitment and commitment, in the end, is what turns someone who can write into someone who can get published.

I truly believe the student body at the academy is unique. They are self-starting, managing and initiating their own projects, full of ideas to make the course experience better and enrich their own learning. They read, and consider fiction written by other people deeply, as well as their own. They work hard. They have all, without exception, come on leaps and bounds since they started the course (even those who do not know it yet).

Below I've detailed everything they've done so you can see for yourselves. I think their achievements are exceptional. I'm inspired by their energy and motivation and expect big things of academy students in the coming years. I'm looking forward to reading reviews of their books in the Guardian and Independent and telling everyone that I taught them.

So far, my teaching career has produced just one star, Bradley McIntosh of S Club Seven fame. As I taught him maths, I cannot claim to have contributed nearly as much as the Brit school, where he went after I knew him. But I did give him his first commendation (or accommodation, as he called it at the time) and I always smiled when he danced into the classroom.

I like to think of my writing students in a similar way. The success is theirs; entirely down to blood, sweat and tears. But I always smiled when they danced into the classroom.


PS You can buy a copy of their brilliant and very professionally produced anthology Finding a Voice here. Thanks to Imprimata for all their efforts and help with this.

NAW Student Achievements – as of March 2009

Tina Freeth

Published short story in Birmingham words pamphlet ‘Perfectly Formed’

Published short story in anthology ‘Original Skin’

Winner of SCRIPT Games playwrighting competition - one of five plays (ten minutes in length) chosen for to be performed at the B'ham Museum and Art Gallery directed by ex-BBC producer Kate Chapman (22 Nov 2008).

'Growing up on lard' published in The Map of Me - Decibel Penguin anthology (Nov 2008).

Contracted as writer by Franklin Watts Publishing for two titles in a newly created series (The Crew) for reluctant readers. The title of Tina's first book will be - 'Day of the Dog'.

'Aston Manna' (15 minute film) shortlisted for Screen West Midlands/UK Film Council funding for DIGISHORTS project.

Storytelling leader at Herefordshire Council's DESTINATION CHINA - Easter festival 2009

Short film script 'Lychees and Bingo Ball's' (an adaptation from own short story) has been chosen along with four others by the BBC Writers' Room who ran a competition BBC Bites in March 2008, looking for stories by or about the British Chinese community. The Writersroom are now looking for partnership funding to produce all five short films.

Featured on BBC Video Nation

Baljinder Gill

Completed 2 feature length scripts - "Walls Between Us" and "Don't Miss It - Live Suicide Tonight!" and also a short script - "Divine Intervention" which has made it through the first cut of the British Short Script Competition. There were 1500 entries and they've made the first cut to just over 400.

Federay Holmes

Federay has had a story published in literary magazine ‘Bad Idea’
Made third round of the Verity Bargate Award for play "Pull to Standing"
Audio play produced by the BBC which can be found here

Richard Howse

Made the top 20 in the Screenwriters’ Festival 2007 Fever Pitch competition and had his script sent to channel 4 for consideration.

Three issues of ‘Writing Tips’ broadcast in Litopia podcast to over 4500 listeners.

Completed work for Scholastic Children's Books on an ARG (Artificial Reality Game) for MG Harris's Joshua Files book series. Richard adapted the story from an original idea by MG Harris and co-authored the content of the game with her, which involves: blogs, interactive websites, video diaries, scripted dialogue, and a live event at the game's climax on the 27th March.

Fiona Joseph

Longlisted (last 25) in the Happenstance International Short Story Competition (Feb 2008)

Bobbie Darbyshire

Bobbie has now left the course, but will be publishing her first novel 'Truth Games' with Cinnamon Press this summer. She has also had another novel 'The Real McCoy' serialised, and short stories published and performed.

Robert Ronsson

Robert won the Button Bridge Books short story competition.

Published short story in Birmingham words pamphlet ‘Perfectly Formed’

Published ‘Olympic Mind Games’, a young adult novel, which made the heady heights of Amazon top 500 after a very well managed marketing campaign.

Shortlisted for Impress First Novel Award, run by Impress book and University of Exeter’s Centre for Creative Writing for his novel ‘The Spaniard’s Wife’. This was also longlisted (25) in the Jane Wenham-Jones 'wannabe a writer?' competition.

Presented the awards at the Worcestershire Teen Book Awards 2007 ceremony at Droitwich Library on April 24, 2007.

Sold 7000 copies of 'Olympic Mind Games' to a financial services company in America called Mutual of Omaha. Mutual of Omaha sponsors the 'Break-out! Swim Clinics' which tour the USA finding and coaching new swimming talent and they are giving each participant in the program a copy of my book. Has now sold more than 9000 copies of OMG in the UK and USA.

'The Speed Trap' won a Writers' News competition and it will be published in the May 2009 edition of the magazine. (Robert has also been shortlisted for this prize three times previously.)

Rachel Pickering

Rachel has had first person articles published in the Guardian and Sunday Telegraph. As part of "Open Mouth Productions" she wrote, directed and performed show "Love, Honour and Obey" (four character monologues) in Hebden Bridge – it was a sell out and very well received.

Geoff Mills

Short poem ‘The Film’ published in issue 19 of Aesthetica
Wrote a series of introductions for 501 Great Writers - A Comprehensive Guide to the Giants of Literature.

Elizabeth Nichols

Finished her first novel 'Little Time Bomb'

Rena Brannan

Rena’s play ‘Baby's Wedding’, about a Korean mother who is in competition with her best friend to see who can marry their respective daughters off first, was shortlisted for the Yellow Voices play writing competition, run by the Yellow Earth Theatre. Shortlisted playwrights had the chance to meet the directors of the Birmingham Rep, the Young Vic and the Soho Theatre.

Rena also deserves a special mention for her participation in NAW projects. She has been part of teams in a number of projects, and co-ordinated two showcase events and various workshops. She's done an excellent job on everything she's been involved with.

Gabby Bulmer

Gabby has finished her children’s novel ‘Elemental Heroes’ and is now seeking representation for her book.

Sophie Ward

Publication of article in the Times
Commission and reading of story at the Vice Chancellor’s installation December 2007.

Other publications have included My Orphean Underworld in Sesame, Meat, which won first prize in the BCU Free Word competition, and Private Lives, a regular column for Crave magazine.

Sophie's latest short story has been published by New Fairy Tales
Sophie blogs here, and about books here.

Anna May Mangan

Article in the Sunday Times October 28th 2007 ‘Proud to be a Pushy Mother’
Has now published two features in the Mail on Sunday You magazine, one in Saga, came second in the Prima short story competition in November issue and placed second in the international Sean O'Faolain Prize.

Eveline Williams

Had an audio piece broadcast on Resonance FM

Tamsin Walker

Completed 2nd draft of novel and is now looking for representation.
Completed 2 feature film scripts - received interest from UK funder and director for one, German director and producers for another.
Commissioned by Bertelsmann to write and record a series of 39 stories for children, plus a series of scripts for animation

James Kennedy

After a stint finding his feet at many open mic and spoken word events, James jointly founded Wrote Under Publishing, a non profit co-operative in Birmingham. He edited magazines and promoted gigs, and in 2007 he was one of the ‘three’ in Wrote Under’s first publication, ‘The Underground Three: Three Go Mainstream’, a collection of poetry and prose. James’s performances have included experimental music and acting as well as poetry, and he has performed at many arts venues, including the opening of Eastside Projects gallery.

Kathleen Dixon Donnelly

Kathleen is a Senior Lecturer in public relations, in the Birmingham City Business School, and has received a RoLEX grant from the university's Center for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning [CETL] to develop an interdisciplinary course in public relations with the School of Media. This will expand the teaching of writing to students studying business degrees.

Finding a Voice

The following students were published in our annual anthology, Finding a Voice:
Bobbie Darbyshire, Robert Ronsson, Lucy Fussell, Fiona Joseph, Bruce Johns, Rachel Pickering, Eveline Williams, Gabby Bulmer, Sophie Ward, Ryan Davis, Rena Brannan, Tina Freeth, Gemma McErlean, Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, Nick LeMesurier, Elizabeth Nichols.


The following students took part in our June show:
Sophie Ward, Robert Ronsson, Edmund Bealby-Wright, Mike Morrison, Bobbie Darbyshire, Bruce Johns, Tina Freeth, Geoff Mills, Richard Howse, Rena Brannan.

Our prizewinners were: Bobbie Darbyshire (Fiction), Sophie Ward (Screenwriting), Tina Freeth (Enterprise) and Robert Ronsson (Professional Development).

The following students took part in our showcase at Birmingham Book Festival:
Federay Holmes, Bruce Johns, Tina Freeth, Rob Ronsson, Edmund Bealby-Wright, Carol Burns, Roger Noble, Fiona Joseph, Dave Ewer, Geoff Mills, Nick Le Mesurier, Bobbie Darbyshire, Sophie Ward, Rena Brannan

The following students took part in our showcase as part of the December course day:
Fiona Joseph, Rob Ronson, Geoff Mills, Federay Holmes, Mike Morrison, Roger Noble, Sophie Ward

The state of the union

It has a been a long time since I blogged here, or anywhere for that matter. I have all kinds of excuses lined up about life taking over and work being busy and finding that I needed all my writing time for, well, writing novels. But the truth is, I got a little bored.

Looking back at my blog, now, I think I understand why. I started this site as a place to post news and perhaps muse randomly about writing, which I still think is fair enough but reading back my posts I feel they lacked a certain depth of thought. Mostly, they rambled on about what I'd been doing, a little like an online diary, which I suppose a blog is, except that I'm not sure how much of myself, as a writer or otherwise, I was really giving people here. It almost feels like lipservice.

So, now I'm back and I've been thinking and I might handle things here a little differently from before. I guess we'll just have to wait and see...

I'm also planning to resurrect Frankie over at Starfish Soup. I've discovered recently that she does have something to say, after all. I think it could be fun. Watch out for new posts there very soonly. I have also decided I will make up words if I want to. I like it.

Niki x